How to Create a Volunteer Handbook for Your Nonprofit

When your nonprofit starts attracting volunteers, it can be an exciting time of growth and community for everyone involved. However, when volunteers start streaming in, it can be overwhelming to onboard, train and even manage all of them. It’s a great problem to have, but your organization will need to create systems and standards to support your volunteers.

That’s where a volunteer handbook may come in handy. Much a like a business offers employee handbooks and training materials; a volunteer handbook serves to inform, educate and support volunteers.

Volunteers helping to microchip wildlife.
••• Robin Bush/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

What Is a Volunteer Handbook?

At its core, a volunteer handbook is a resource (printed or digital) that clearly defines what your nonprofit does and how volunteers help the organization. It can explain different volunteering rules, as well as set out tasks or expectations. A handbook should be used to recruit, onboard and train volunteers so that everyone starts off with the same knowledge. It’s also a “legacy” resource that everyone can use as they grow with your organization.

Why Create a Volunteer Handbook?

Nonprofits, in many instances, have limited resources and staff. Spending time to recruit, train and supervise volunteers can add up quickly, especially if you have a lot of interested individuals.

Thankfully, volunteer handbooks can help reduce some of the time and money involved in volunteer recruitment and onboarding. Also, they don’t have to be expensive or elaborate. A simple online PDF can standardize the volunteer experience and doesn’t require much time, money or print materials.

Best of all, a volunteer handbook provides a consistent resource that staff, volunteers and even donors can reference. This gives them a clear picture of what your organization does and how volunteers help. Rather than worrying about different training experiences or “word of mouth” directions, volunteers and staff have a handbook that helps them succeed.

When you include communication methods and contact information, you also decrease the amount of “baton-passing” it can take to answer a volunteer’s question or organize schedules. A volunteer handbook empowers people to do their best work via direct access to the people they work with.

What Goes into a Volunteer Handbook?

Depending on the size and sector of your nonprofit, your handbook will vary in size and breadth. Each nonprofit is different and has its own structure, so there’s no one “set” table of contents for your volunteer handbook.

 However, many nonprofits, both small and large, use handbooks that include their:

●    Welcome letter: This could consist of a thank you or a warm welcome to increase interest in the volunteer program. It also sets the tone for your organization’s staff/volunteer relationship. You can even highlight how volunteering benefits volunteers to get people even more interested in joining your program.

●    Organization’s mission: This is the who, what and why of your organization. You probably already have a nonprofit mission statement so you can use that here.

●    List of staff, board of directors, chairpeople.

●    Programs and campaigns: List all of the programs your nonprofit offers, as well as any community outreach. Include services offered, programs funded, and locations open.

●    Roles and responsibilities of volunteers: This may include positions and tasks to fill. You can also highlight the impact volunteers have and information on diversity and representation.

●    Volunteer policies: Outline qualifications for volunteer positions, i.e., if they need a background check, tests or certifications. Include any application forms or submissions. Explain absence and termination policies

●    Conduct and behavior: Explain the dress code, professional behavior expectations and where volunteers can report concerns. Some organizations may include their code of ethics, especially if a volunteer’s work is sensitive in nature, such as caring for children or the disabled or elderly.

●    Operations and work outlines: Nonprofits can make this section specific to different volunteer roles, or provide a generic template for where to report or what to wear. Also include safety guidelines, work process, and information on shifts and schedules.

●    Directory: Include staff members or volunteer leaders who are in charge. List essential phone numbers, group tools and websites that will help volunteers keep track of their tasks or schedules.

Volunteer tutoring young girl.
••• KidStock/Blend Images/Getty Images

Customizing a Handbook for Your Organization

The list above is just a starting point for your nonprofit; in no way is it the only format you can choose. Nonprofits can make a full handbook version, or they can take more of a volunteer “orientation” approach.

An orientation handbook may focus only on the roles and tasks volunteers will be performing for your organization. This could be customized to each position or could serve as a general orientation handbook that all volunteers are given. An orientation handbook is especially useful for volunteer roles associated with some risk of injury or liability, as with construction or heavy lifting.

Some nonprofits may need to include additional sections, such as reimbursement guidelines or emergency evacuation procedures. There may also be some legal or insurance disclaimers to include, such as injury liability information or the Good Samaritan Law. Take a moment to ask if there are any “unusual” tasks you’ll ask of your volunteers, and create a section in your handbook that addresses them.

How to Make a Volunteer Handbook (Quickly)

The beauty of a volunteer handbook is that it doesn’t have to be complicated. You can use existing training documents or discussions between staff and volunteers to decide what to include.

You can also use other nonprofits’ handbooks as an outline (but don’t copy!). Also, keep in mind that your handbook doesn’t have to be perfect; it’s OK to start with a first edition and upgrade as you expand.

The key is just to get started.

Using Microsoft Word or Google Docs, one of your volunteers or staff members can select professional manual templates, brochure templates, or just use a basic document. To make it easy to browse, however, try to include:

●    A clear title with all relevant information (name, address, contact information)

●    A table of contents

●    Page breaks between sections

●    Simple, easy-to-read content

●    Easy-to-read font and colors

●    Program coordinator contact information for secure communication

You can brand your handbook to match your organization's colors, fonts and image style. Make your handbook as clear, organized and concise as possible.

 Once you’ve got your first handbook edited and ready to go, you can either print it or create an online PDF for your website. This is the most affordable option. With an online PDF, you can distribute the handbook via email, social media or your website.

Volunteers helping at a construction site.
••• Nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity have identified a problem and set out to solve it. Hero Images/Getty Images

Nonprofit Volunteer Handbook Examples

Looking for some inspiration? Here are a few great examples of what your volunteer handbook could look like:

●    Hearing Speech and Deafness Center Volunteer Orientation Manual

●    Catholic Charities of Maine Volunteer Handbook

●    Meals on Wheels South Australia Volunteer Handbook

●    Women’s Empowerment Volunteer Handbook

●    Salvation Army Northern Division Volunteer Policies and Procedures

●    FIND Food Bank Volunteer Handbook

Remember, there is no “one size fits all” approach to creating a volunteer handbook. Think about what information you need to share consistently with your volunteers and which resources you’d like them to have. You can always add an update later (having a PDF volunteer handbook on your website makes this even easier).

Save time, money, energy and stress by giving your staff and volunteers a resource they can use to make the most impact with the least amount of oversight.